The Clinton administration raised these issues in the early 1990s when it insisted that Canada and Mexico sign side agreements pledging to enforce environmental laws and labor standards in return for American ratification of NAFTA. Under President Clinton, the United States also worked with the International Labor Organization to help developing countries adopt measures to ensure safe workplaces and basic workers' rights, and it financed programs to reduce child labor in a number of developing countries. Still, efforts by the Clinton administration to link trade agreements to environmental protection and labor-standards measures remain controversial in other countries and even within the United States.
Despite general adherence to the principles of nondiscrimination, the United States has joined certain preferential trade arrangements. The U.S. Generalized System of Preferences program, for instance, seeks to promote economic development in poorer countries by providing duty-free treatment for certain goods that these countries export to the United States; the preferences cease when producers of a product no longer need assistance to compete in the U.S. market. Another preferential program, the Caribbean Basin Initiative, seeks to help an economically struggling region that is considered politically important to the United States; it gives duty-free treatment to all imports to the United States from the Caribbean area except textiles, some leather goods, sugar, and petroleum products.
The United States sometimes departs from its general policy of promoting free trade for political purposes, restricting imports to countries that are thought to violate human rights, support terrorism, tolerate narcotics trafficking, or pose a threat to international peace. Among the countries that have been subject to such trade restrictions are Burma, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria. But in 2000, the United States repealed a 1974 law that had required Congress to vote annually whether to extend "normal trade relations" to China. The step, which removed a major source of friction in U.S.-China relations, marked a milestone in China's quest for membership in the World Trade Organization.
There is nothing new about the United States imposing trade sanctions to promote political objectives. Americans have used sanctions and export controls since the days of the American Revolution, well over 200 years ago. But the practice has increased since the end of the Cold War. Still, Congress and federal agencies hotly debate whether trade policy is an effective device to further foreign policy objectives.
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This article is adapted from the book "Outline of the U.S. Economy" by Conte and Carr and has been adapted with permission from the U.S. Department of State.